Gephardt News

Ying Ma on Why the Census Matters

Ying Ma is an international Master of Social Work student at Washington University’s Brown School with a concentration in Older Adults and Aging Societies. Currently, she is completing a practicum with the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, where her work revolves around the 2020 U.S. Census. Before starting at Washington University, Ying was involved with a census survey in Hefei city, China. She used the census data to learn about demographic changes and community needs, and it has continued to inform her experience as a social work student.

Currently, Ying coordinates census work with a focus on graduate and international students. She is aware of the importance of the census and potential concerns about participating as an international or non-citizen student.

The U.S. Census happens every ten years and is a count of every person living in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories. The count is mandated by the Constitution and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Participation in the census matters because results determine government funding for schools, hospitals, and other critical services in our communities. They also guarantee that all residents receive fair and equal representation in Congress and inform important research that will shape our nation for the next decade. The census questionnaire is short and confidential, but knowing how and with whom to participate can be confusing, especially for students and other individuals who have had to relocate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ying emphasized the importance of everyone participating in the census. “For me,” she shared, “the census is much more than just a survey. It is a feasible way to contribute to local community development.” She also acknowledged that for many students, and particularly international or non-citizen students, filling out the census can be scary. Since the questionnaire gathers personal information, it can be worrisome to students who are unsure of how information is used. Ying noted that she had initial concerns about the U.S. Census and the information it might ask for. However, she found “it was very easy to answer, and there weren’t any sensitive questions.” She added that, “if a student is nervous about answering questions about their race, it is acceptable to leave a field blank.”

For many, the census is an act of civic engagement that only comes up once a decade, but for Ying, it reflects a broader passion for community advocacy that goes back to childhood. “I was raised by my grandparents, and they enjoyed talking to younger people,” she shared. “They would tell me stories every night before bed, and my relationship with them is part of why I’m interested in studying older adults. As a social worker, I want to be involved with social justice to resolve issues like health disparities among older adults, individuals from a lower income, people living alone, etc.” Ying’s background and training in social work have shown her the value in participating in efforts that provide critical data and impacts on services for older adults and other vulnerable populations.

Washington University has transitioned to online classes in an effort to ensure the health and safety of the campus community. As students learn and work remotely, Ying and other Gephardt Institute staff are adjusting messaging and other forms of outreach with a focus on where to be counted. Simply put: The Census Bureau is proceeding as if students are still at their campus (either on- or off-campus) residences, not at whatever residence they’ve relocated to because of the campus closure. This means students should be counted as though they are in the St. Louis area.

The census is an important way we can all engage in and on behalf of communities while also practicing social distancing and slowing the spread of COVID-19. For more information on the census process for WashU students, visit To learn more about the 2020 census and to access language support and other resources, visit